Wrong Time for an E-Vote Glitch

R. A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Mon Aug 16 11:08:45 EDT 2004


Wired News

Wrong Time for an E-Vote Glitch 
By Kim Zetter?

Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/evote/0,2645,64569,00.html

10:00 AM Aug. 12, 2004 PT

It was simultaneously an uh-oh moment and an ah-ha moment.

 When Sequoia Voting Systems demonstrated its new paper-trail electronic
voting system for state Senate staffers in California last week, the
company representative got a surprise when the paper trail failed to record
votes that testers cast on the machine.

 That was bad news for the voting company, whose paper-trail, touch-screen
machine will be used for the first time next month in Nevada's state
primary. The company advertises that its touch-screen machines provide
"nothing less than 100 percent accuracy."

 It was good news, however, for computer scientists and voting activists,
who have long held that touch-screen machines are unreliable and vulnerable
to tampering, and therefore must provide a physical paper-based audit trail
of votes.

 "It goes to our point that a paper trail is very much needed to (ensure)
that the machine accurately reports what people press," said Susie Swatt,
chief of staff for state Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), who witnessed the
glitch in the Sequoia machine.

 With a paper-trail system, the voting machines would print out a record
when voters cast ballots on a touch-screen machine. Voters could examine,
but not touch, the record before casting their ballot. The paper would then
drop into a secure ballot box for use in a recount.

 For nearly a year, voting companies and many election officials have
resisted the call for a paper record. Election officials say that putting
printers on voting machines would create problems for poll workers if the
printers break down or run out of paper, and the paper records will cause
long poll lines with voters taking more time to check the record.

 Voting activists maintain, however, that election officials don't want the
paper trail because it opens the way for recounts and lawsuits if paper
records don't match digital vote tallies. And they say that paper records
would provide proof the machines are not as accurate as companies claim.

 Acting on public pressure for a paper trail, Sequoia became the first of
the four largest voting companies to add printers to their voting machines
earlier this year. Two smaller voting companies have had paper-trail
machines for longer, but have had trouble selling the machines to election

 During the demonstration of the Sequoia machine last week, the machine
worked fine when the company tested votes using an English-language ballot.
But when the testers switched to a Spanish-language ballot, the paper trail
showed no votes cast for two propositions.

 "We did it again and the same thing happened," said Darren Chesin, a
consultant to the state Senate elections and reapportionment committee.
"The problem was not with the paper trail. The paper trail worked
flawlessly, but it caught a mistake in the programming of the touch-screen
machine itself. For some reason it would not record or display the votes on
the Spanish ballot for these two ballot measures. The only reason we even
caught it was because we were looking at the paper trail to verify it."

 Sequoia spokesman Alfie Charles said the problem was not a programming
error but a ballot-design error.

 "It was our fault for not proofing the Spanish language ballot before
demonstrating it," Charles said. "We had a demo ballot that we designed in
a hurry that didn't include all of the files that we needed to have the
machine present all of the voter's selections on the screen and the printed
ballots. That would never happen in an election environment because of all
the proofing that election officials do."

 Charles said the machine did record the votes accurately in its memory,
but failed to record them on the paper trail and on the review screen that
voters examine before casting their ballot. Swatt and Chesin could not
confirm this, however, because the company did not show them evidence of
the digital votes stored on the machine's internal memory.

 "We've been saying all along that these things are subject to glitches,"
Chesin said. "The bottom line is that the paper trail caught the mistake.
Ergo, paper trails are a good idea."

 Charles agreed the paper trail worked exactly as it was supposed to work.
"If this happened in an election, the first voter would see it and could
call a pollworker. They would take the machine out of service if they saw a
problem," he said.

 Ironically, just one week after the demonstration occurred, California
took one step back from making sure voters in the state will have the
reassurance that a paper trail provides.

 On Thursday, a Senate bill that would require a voter-verified paper trail
on all electronic voting machines in the state by January 2006 suffered a
setback when the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where the bill resided,
decided not to push the bill forward during this legislative session, which
ends Aug. 31. This means legislators will have to reintroduce a new bill
next January when they reconvene.

 The bill (PDF), introduced by Johnson and state Senator Don Perata
(D-Oakland), had bipartisan support and the backing of Secretary of State
Kevin Shelley.

 "I'm a little mystified why the committee has stalled the bill," Swatt
said. "E-voting machines, like them or not, are here to stay in California.
It is clear that if we are going to be living with e-voting machines the
only way to protect voters and to ensure that their votes are counted
accurately is to have a paper trail."

 Swatt said she hoped the public would pressure the legislature to push the
bill forward before the session ends.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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